Learning to play the guitar was only part of the challenge for Elisabeth Moss.

Movies

How Elisabeth Moss Found Inspiration in Tragedy to Play a Rock Star in Her Smell

The star knew authenticity would be key to her portrayal of a self-destructive punk rocker whose career and personal life are derailed by addiction.

Becky Something is fictional, but elements of her self-destructive cycle of fame and addiction have haunted real-life celebrities for decades.

Elisabeth Moss jumped at the opportunity to play the punk rocker that commands both stage and screen in the low-budget drama Her Smell, although she knew authenticity would be key.

Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) said she was inspired by Amy Winehouse, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, among others — artists whose fame overlapped with chemical dependency or tragic consequences. But she also gained perspective by talking to non-celebrities who had gone through addiction and recovery.

“I wanted to capture the anxiety and the instability, and the feeling that you are just trying to hold on,” Moss said during the recent South by Southwest Film Festival. “I didn’t want it to be some sort of perfect story where she gets over it and everything is fine.”

In the film, Becky is a product of the early 1990s grunge scene who fronts an all-girl band while dealing with her various addictions and undiagnosed mental health issues. The resulting narcissism derails both her music career and her personal life. Repairing those toxic relationships with her ex-husband (Dan Stevens) and young daughter, her bandmates, and others comes with a price.

“I was fascinated by that generation. They were so angry, and it wasn’t just teen angst. It was genuine anger and depression, and it was at a time when people didn’t know how to deal with their feelings. You weren’t supposed to talk about it,” Moss said. “They didn’t have the tools to deal with what they were dealing with, but it was incredible how they were able to put those feelings into music.”

Moss, 36, grew up in a family of musicians, but was still somewhat apprehensive about the performance sequences sprinkled throughout the screenplay by director Alex Ross Perry (Queen of Earth). For example, she had to practice the guitar for 4-5 months prior to production.

“I got to a place where I was able to look like I knew how to play it. I got some good callouses on my fingers,” said Moss, who also had to learn a piano cover of the Bryan Adams’ ballad “Heaven,” which was filmed in one long take.

“I was so nervous,” she said. “We did eight takes, and I think it’s the sixth take that’s in the movie. If I hit one wrong note or forgot a lyric, I would have to start over. It was a really scary experience doing any of the music.”

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